Upheaval: Walking Alone
By Joe Gunnarson
The time was right. The tree was prepared. The forest had died by plague, the Tree burned to death. The work had taken years to accomplish, signalled by the dying wail of the last animal in the cursed place. She stood, and walked widdershins, in a spiral, carefully measuring each step in the spiral of her passage. Days passed, the ground defiled by the plague. The master bid her complete her work. She ignored the fallen bones of the dead animals, the dried out husks of every insect that had once lived here. The work had been painstaking. She had had to call upon her master's servants to make the work progress apace, no faster, no slower.
An age passed, and she came to the tree, a stark and gnarled monolith of death itself. Here the pain, and death was focused. Her hands reached out, and she tore the trunk open with hardly a grunt of exertion, tearing away the charred wood that was useless to her. She extracted the heart of the tree, leaving the rest to rot with it's brethren, carrying the dire package to her home. Her place. The master's mad children scurried about her, never looking too closely at her unmarred body, and she ignored them and their mutations. They were irrelevant to her.
She had prepared this place two years ago, a sanctum of terror even to the children of her master. The Gateway Sigil was branded into the stone floor of the massive chamber. The tools were prepared. She began forming the blackened wood, cutting away the chaff in measured detail. With each stroke, she spoke the guttural and horrific words of her master's language. The gnarled wood became a staff, and each syllable of the profane speech blackened the wood further. The staff in hand, she walked out of her sanctum.
The children of her master saw her, and gibbered madly in the wake of the awakened staff. They felt it's hunger, and begged for what they knew would join them to the creation. She ignored them, passing the boundary of the village without word or pause. The road was long. She never stopped. The township ahead never saw death slip in like a thief in the night. The two guardsmen died silently, their blood and life energy fed to the shaft of wood. With each killing she etched a rune. It would have been easier had the master allowed for his sigils, but he wanted the staff to be innocuous and unknowable. Thus did the process extend a year of prior preparation. The first man to emerge from his hovel at the screams died as his chest was shattered by a single blow from a fist, then the staff was buried in his body at one end as she etched another sigil.
One by one the men died. these were not warriors, merely simple peasants, for whom the daemon had come. One by one they fell, and as the moon reached it's zenith, the real work began. Only the crows marked the passing of the village from life. When the next humans passed through, they would find nothing, merely the dead of a village untouched in their silence even by the scavengers that fled the unhallowed place.
She returned home to madness. The master's children gibbered and whooped at her passing, though none dared touch her or her charge. They gathered around her sanctum and chanted as she stepped into the gateway sigil. The rite was complex, the stars in perfect alignment. The roiling darkness and horror coalesced into an unknowable mass, A Shoggoth. Eyes and mouths and tentacles watched and flailed and screamed in profane chorus as the beast's presence drove the master's children beyond the brink of madness. She struck twice, drawing debased ichor from the beast at both ends of the staff and drove the end into the center of the sigil. The Shoggoth did not interfere. It did not care that the speck of nothing had blooded it.
As it flowed over and around her she called out the final syllables of the horrific chant, ignoring the screams in the village as the monster devoured all life in it's path, absorbing the master's children into it's own mad formlessness. The chanting continued and gained crescendo, until finally all sound ceased, in time with the last mutated wretch's dying, ecstatic wails. Eldritch light erupted through the sigil, binding it's power to the staff, and she stood against the storm of energy that crawled across her mind. It did not matter. She could not even see the eldritch, nauseating, green symbols branded into her flesh, the energies matched her color perfectly. And any mortal being who looked upon the mad whorls and spirals in the pattern would have gone instantly mad. It had happened before.
A gateway tore open as the energies coalesced. She stepped through and knelt in supplication, holding the instrument forward, head bowed. It was taken from her gently, and a tentacle raised her gaze . She beheld her master, in all it's glory. She...
Dark chest of wonders
Seen through the eyes
Of the one with pure heart Once so long ago -Nightwish, 'Dark Chest of Wonders'
Whateley infirmary,Thursday, November 24th
She woke up screaming, primal madness and terror warring in her voice as her mind desperately drove the image from her mind and destroyed it to protect itself from what would come if it failed to do so in time. Her horrified shriek echoed through the bare room, and she screamed and screamed and screamed, eyes wide in horror and near-madness. Eldritch fire erupted across her body, burning away the blankets and the sheets, searing the bed to it's frame and giving voice to her terror.
The doctors' staff at Whately bolted into the room to see their charge burning with unholy eldritch fire that did not touch her skin. One of the orderlies tried to restrain her and recoiled, burned as the eldritch energies lashed out from the screaming girl. The sound was soul-wrenching, showing a depth of horror that few could comprehend. The confusion reigned until Ophelia burst into the room and barked a few words. The wards flashed and the fire died, but she kept screaming. Doctor Bellows walked up and pressed a needle into her thigh as the orderlies desperately tried to restrain her. A few seconds later the screaming began to fade, and she slumped back onto the charred mattress. The unholy light in the room finally died as she passed from consciousness.
Mrs. Carson looked at Gunny Bardue across her desk. The Ex-Marine was angry, tired and stressed. One of his best people was laid out on a gurney in Whateley's infirmary, and unable to see anyone for the safety of all involved. Carson could definitely understand his perspective on this, and for once his discomfort over the kind of changes his man had gone through did not show. At this point he was far beyond caring.
"I can't just approve of that and you know it, Elizabeth. He's one of us, and he's been a damned fine example to the students as well." He paused to compose himself. "I understand the concern here but we can't just dump him in the brig at ARC! I don't get it. We have several students who are just as dangerous to themselves and others and we make accommodations for them over at Hawthorne. But a teacher's powers explode into the fritz and suddenly he needs to be black holed?"
"Gunny name one student who could be considered as dangerous, or even nearly so. His uncontrolled explosion was well beyond anything that we can contain." Carson kept her voice even. She agreed with Bardue on principle, if not when compared with the safety of the school.
"Gunny we can't compare her to Mahren. It's not on the same scale."
"Same scale? We have to keep that poor girl sequestered away from everyone to keep her blood from killing someone on contact. Spill that shit and it'd take a decontamination team weeks to clean that shit out."
"I'm not seeing any options here gunny. Every time Erik moves, even in sleep, there's a burst of magical energy. Hell he damned near destroyed the room he was in earlier today. I agree with you on principle but even if we keep him here, we couldn't let him out of wherever we put him, just in case he has another uncontrolled episode like the hazard test range."
"I can't see why everyone's so fucking ready to hang him out to dry. He's a good man and a good marine."
"Gunny I know he is, but I know with you this is personal. He's your man. He had been even while in the armed services."
"Personal? Yes it's personal." Bardue forced himself to calm down. "Even with my personal feelings, and Hartford's aside, since I put Erik on weapons control and rangemaster there has not been one single injury on any range while he was directly supervising it."
"I read his record since he got here. It's exceptional, but there we can't handle him here, and there is nothing that says this was a result of the school's normal operation."
"Wanna bet?" The large Marine leaned back as Carson looked at him. "First off, his talent for weapons and gear is well-documented in both his personnel file and his service jacket. This whole thing snowballed because of me, his direct supervisor. Further, I was following school policy when I ordered him to go see the docs in accordance with those policies. Further, had he not gone to see the doctors he never would have snowballed into the nightmare that's happened to him."
Mrs. Carson was silent, listening quietly.
"And last, he's an energizer, only keyed to magic instead of another, more common phenomenon. Nobody picked up on that. Not his folks, not the Corps, and not our overworked staff here even when he was being tested for this shit. He's been building a god damned charge from the minute he stepped on the grounds on his first day. The only reason we found out was because a freshman girl happened to get a good look at him after he blew an item, that from Westmount's description, would have killed her on contact. And you're telling me the school doesn't owe him anything?"
"What would you have us do Gunny?"
"Carson I don't know, but if we don't try, and we just Black Hole him we'll have betrayed a good man and left him to rot as a lab animal like the real threats in this world deserve." He got up from his seat and walked to the door. "Further, if Mahren is sent to ARC the letters of resignation from myself and the entire Crisis Simulation Team will be on your desk Monday morning."
Bardue left the office without another word, leaving Carson looking as if she had bit into something foul. In a way she had, and he was right. But how in God's name could she acquiesce to his wishes and keep the students safe at the same time? And how could she live with herself if she didn't try to help the man?
Erik woke up slowly as the realization that he was not, in fact, dead filtered into his consciousness. He shifted under the sheets a bit and a stinging crackle accompanied by a burning sensation accompanied the movement. He jolted upright, and another snap accompanied the hissing sound as he bolted out from the bed. The first thing to filter into his forcibly awakened consciousness was that he felt wrong, body felt lighter, completely balanced wrong, and there was an uncomfortable wobble at his chest. There was also hair in his face. He brushed it up over his head and looked around.
The room was large, about the size of his old apartment. And it was absolutely covered, walls, floor and ceiling in wards and glyphs and symbols he didn't feel like getting too curious about just yet. The bed was a typical hospital bed, all white and made for maximum discomfort, and the sheets and mattress has scorch marks all over. Hooray for fireproof linens. Besides the bed, there wasn't much to the room besides a mirror, and every time he turned or twitched to look around there was a static hiss, and occasional a crackling snap. The snaps hurt, and he twitched and closed his eyes, holding perfectly still.
Given the feelings he was getting from his body he could guess what had happened, although he didn't exactly know how to feel about it. He opened his eyes and walked to the mirror, trying to keep his calm while knowing exactly what he was going to see. Yup. It wasn't him anymore, and every time something moved the mirror showed coruscating energy clinging to him, or rather, her. Wild blues, greens and angry reds ripped across the body of the girl reflected, sometimes erupting in sparks or little arcs of energy, similar to lightning. Those stung like a bitch. He took a deep breath and looked closely. Best get it done before reality caught up and he freaked out completely.
The heart-shaped face was very well defined, and showed no hint of the older man he'd been before. Thick, dark, bluish-black and very reflective hair hung down straight, to the small of her back. Her eyes were the disturbing bit. They had a color of metal, and seemed rather reflective as well. He looked close and realized that the irises seemed to have been disks of shaped steel, with some kind of marks, or runes etched around the pupils. Her pale skin was offset slightly by her lips, which while pretty and definitely 'his type' was never going to attract DSL jokes. Thank God for small mercies.
"Oh fuck me running." No surprise, his voice sounded lighter, and quite a bit more feminine than before.
He took a deep breath and backed away, then looked down, twisting to get a good look. He ignored, or tried to ignore the odd snapping and sapping, hissing sounds and smell of ozone whenever he moved. Trim, athletic, with some well defined muscles, his new form didn't have any excess body fat, except the one place where he never wanted to see it. Those breasts looked huge from where he was standing, though they seemed to be perfectly proportioned to her body in the mirror. He checked his plumbing. Yup. It's a girl. God damn it. This sucks.
Erik closed his eyes for a minute and fought down the howl of rage and frustration that was building inside and felt a massive pressure, and a sensation he'd not felt since some hellish winters in Alaska as freezing waves rippled across his naked body. Eyes opened again and he saw that every single ward was glowing with a purple almost fae light. He also saw that frost was forming on his skin, and along the floor and wall. He sucked in the emotions and the frost vanished, burned away by the wards surrounding him until they stopped glowing.
He examined the walls and floors, mind sifting through the sigils and runes until it clicked. The wards were there to dampen mystic energies, and they were really powerful. The door to the room was also marked, and Erik snarled when he recognized it as a portal ward. he wouldn't be able to break it from this side of the door, so not only was he in a room full of mystical power dampeners, and in the wrong body to boot, but he was a prisoner here.
"Windows. Jesus I'm an idiot sometimes."
The windows were fairly large, they were also marked with the same containment sigil as the door, and further warded to hold in power. It was too much. Erik slammed a fist at one, and it ricocheted off something invisible. He leaned against the glass and felt the frustration building again. He could see the main part of campus a ways off, see the children milling about between the buildings. And here he was, trapped in a god damned storage building, apparently with no way out and not even a pair of underwear. Screw it Let it out.
The scream ripped out, loud and long, and it felt good, rather cathartic in fact. What he hadn't counted on was the eruption of electrical balls that burst on the center of the room, sending bolts of energy into every part of the room. The wards absorbed the shock. The bed didn't. It's frame wasn't grounded well and the part where one of the bolts struck super heated one of the legs, which buckled, bent and snapped, dropping a corner of the aluminum frame onto the floor. It didn't help that the thunderclaps hurt, and it didn't help that it was startling and more than a bit scary.
The emotional roller coaster of fear erupted around Erik, burning with eldritch fire and the Ice of the Arctic and stormed through the room in a mad cacophony, blasting the mirror and bed to shards, and wracking him with sizzling pain without burning the flesh whenever it struck, but he felt his vitality sapping with each strike, and the panic grew, all while the wards in the room burned like purple stars to contain the eruption.
When the storm ended he was huddled in a corner, shaking uncontrollably, causing more of the mystic energies to burst, crack and sizzle along his body. He didn't know what was going on, and at this point he was emotionally burned out, and mentally drained. He didn't even have the presence of mind to realize he was crying as the tears fell.
When the door opened he was oblivious as Gunny Bardue entered the room. Bardue took stock and noted the annihilation of the bed and mirror, then saw the girl huddled in a corner crying quietly. The walls and floor and ceiling showed no sign of damage, but he could only imagine what had happened here. He looked at the demolished bed and picked up a scorched, but intact sheet and walked over, draping it over the naked girl. He winced as the arcs of energy scorched the ends of his arms a little. She pulled the sheet in tight and looked up.
"You look like you're having a rough time kid." Bardue paused. "You OK? You look pretty shaken up."
Erik looked up and saw the big man standing over him. "I don't know what happened. I was trying to figure stuff out. I got frustrated and everything blew up." She seemed damned near on the verge of tears again.
"Normally I'd tell you to pull yourself together, but given the circumstances, I'm going to go get a replacement for your bed. Try to calm down and we'll talk."
"Can I get some clothes?"
"We tried that. You keep burning through everything. Got the magic department working on something for ya."
Erik nodded and Bardue walked over to the wrecked bed and hauled the remains out of the room, leaving the door open. He stood, wincing at the cracking and hissing, walking slowly to the door. He poked a head out the door and the response was immediate. Green lightning arced in the hallway as several lights exploded all at once, and the wind began rushing. He pulled back into the room and the disturbance ended quickly.
He wandered over to one of the walls and leaned against it, wincing with every few steps. He looked around again and sighed.
A loud thump as the end of a bed frame pushed through the door sounded, and he heard muffled grumbling. The bed came in and Bardue set it down with a loud thump before going outside and bringing in the mattress and more fireproof sheets. "Damn, Erik what the hell happened to the hallway?"
Erik shrugged. "Poked my head into the hallway and things went apeshit so I ducked back in. Wasn't fun."
"Yeah I can imagine. Stay inside the room until we can figure out a way for you to safely move about, will ya? I know it sucks, but you're building up intensity, and we couldn't keep you in sick bay safely any more."
"Figures. I'm not sure how it all goes together, but this is some heavy duty shit." He pointed at the walls and floor while holding the sheet wrapped around him with the other hand.
"Damn kid you light up like a Christmas tree whenever you move."
"Tell me about it. Seems like every few minutes I'm getting electrocuted, and it burns like a motherfucker." Erik looked at Bardue for a minute. "I'm not going to be able to go back to work am I?"
"I dunno Erik. We're not sure, but it's looking like that won't be in the cards. Especially not with Hartford throwing her two cents into the pile. I don't know what we can do with you at this point. I had to do some fast talking to keep them from dropping you in Red Complex."
"You gotta be fucking kidding me. I'd rather suck off a shotgun."
Bardue smirked. "Yeah I kinda figured it'd be something like that. I'm still trying to find a way to keep things going, but for now I need you to cooperate as much as you can so you can get through this."
"Wonderful. More Lab Rat time."
"Hey, look at it this way, our human Lab Rats get fed and clothed. Like I said, I got the magic department kicking around some ideas for clothing that won't randomly flash-fry. I'll be back. Going to go snag you some chow at the chow hall, then see if I can't scrounge up a few books on magic stuff for you to look at and work on.
"You hang in there, Marine. You been through worse shit than this. We'll find some way to help you."
"Semper Fi Gunny."
Monday November 27th
The last couple days had been a hell of boredom and frustration, staring at walls that held the maddening glyphs and wards. The currents Erik could see were more defined and distinct, superimposed seemingly 'behind" reality somehow. The worst part was the boredom. She's had nothing to occupy herself for four days. The books Gunny had brought had survived all of eight minutes before bursting into flames, disintegrating or simply falling apart, completely unravelled winding up as a mass of wood pulp in a pool of ink. Then there was the whole sleep thing.
Every time she fell asleep she wound up awake and alert less than an hour later, and no amount of tossing and turning could help it, so she bided her time by pacing back and forth through the room, getting used to ignoring the odd burning or electrical or freezing feeling that ripped across her body whenever that multi hued corona erupted all over her. The computer had been a bust, the keys now resembled some poor kid's science experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong, with small plants growing in the circuitry.
The worst part, which she was keenly aware of, was her body. It felt off, moved completely differently around the hips, and her center of gravity had dropped, throwing off her balance. The walking and running had helped,and her muscles were very clearly defined, without looking like a professional weight lifter, just very athletic. Her tattoos were gone, something she hadn't noticed until she'd tried to sleep, replaced by unmarred skin. That seemed odd with the dreams she had that only lasted as long as she was out, but seemed to cover years. In every dream she was marked in metallic tattoos of varying colors and patterns, and the thought of them brought a simultaneous need and revulsion. She didn't know what it was, but whatever she had become wanted them, while somewhere, on some primal level, everything that made the core of who she was raged in defiance of it.
Things were not helped by the fact that all she had for clothing was a fireproof bed sheet. She deliberately forced her mind away from things she lost, as every time she got deep into such thought, depression came, and with it wild storms of uncontrolled energy that the wards could not suppress. "It doesn't matter what I've become. I'm still me." It had become her mental mantra, her shield against the seeming waking nightmare. She'd honestly wondered how the kids who had to deal with the problem coped. Most of them didn't have an extra thirteen years of self-image reinforced every day. She figured it was that self-image that was keeping her somewhat sane. After all, the body didn't define the person. That's what she kept telling herself at least.
Gunny Bardue walked in carrying a suitcase just as Erik got bored, and was treated to the sight of a naked woman doing push-ups easily, each movement causing ripples and waves of energy to burn along her body. He turned away, not that he wasn't liking the sight, but it was Erik. He wouldn't violate the other marine's trust for anything.
"Hey Erik, hurry up man I got a package for ya." He hollered over his shoulder.
He heard some slapping of feet and a rustling. "All right Gunny, I got my toga on. Come on in."
Neither mentioned the naked push-ups. It didn't feel appropriate. "So whatcha got for me there, boss?"
Bardue shook his head. "The latest and greatest from the mumbo-jumbo crowd here. Clothes. They said they did something to keep the Llama energies from peaking out. So I guess it's just finger-wiggler lingo for keeping you from hitting critical mass and going nuclear."
The suitcase popped open and Erik looked at the clothing. Yup. This was going to take some getting used to. Clothing, and underwear, all styled appropriately for a teenage girl. "If I see anything with Hello Kitty in here someone's going to die."
Bardue chuckled, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Sorry, this is going to take some getting used to."
"Tell me about it. Remind me to fire my career planner." Erik shot a sidelong glance at the Gunny.
"Hey wait a minute you little snot-nosed dust rag..." Bardue stopped as he caught the smirk.
"Even after what, eight years, you're still too easy to get a rise out of there bossman."
"Not my fault I got stuck with a smart-mouthed pissant PFC who knew entirely too much for his own good." Bardue was relaxing, good.
"OK Gunny, first off, same rules of the game. If you start treating me any different I will go absolutely insane and I will take you with me. Just cause I had a freak fit and have boobs is no reason to get all wonky on me."
"It's weird Erik, hell I'm even having a hard time calling you by your old name. It just doesn't fit. And Erika is a far jump too."
"I know, and it's driving me fucking nuts." Erik picked up a few pieces of clothing. "So what's been happening since my happy bout of incarceration here at Whately Correctional?"
"The usual." He continued as Erik went into the small bathroom. "The students are missing you, the good ones at least. The Grunts are pretty off-kilter, seems they prefer your hardass PMI teaching style. The crisis team's waiting on word. They wanna see you up and about. Wilson's a bit freaked about the whole... Chick thing. He'll cope."
Erik's new voice was muffled by the bathroom door. "Wilson better swallow it down. That fucker still owes me from that poker game two weeks ago."
"Erik you been card sharking again?" Bardue had warned him about that... Repeatedly.
"It's not sharking when I tell them up front I can and will take them for every dime they have, and that I was offered a spot in a Vegas tournament."
"Oh well, in that case stupidity should be punished."
"Stupid thing is the idiot wants a rematch to recoup his losses."
Erik came out and the Gunny was stunned to see a young woman in a white tank-top halter with black jeans. Everything hugged her figure and made her look very attractive. The white halter was covered in glyphs and sigils, embroidered in black and silver thread, a pentacle prominently displayed between her breasts. The pants were hip-huggers that fit very tight. More glyphs were sewn in with that silvery thread, making her look rather like the teen pagan from hell. It didn't help that with her face, figure and metallic hair she was a real looker.
"Wow. That was fast."
"It's what all the girls loved about me Boss, I pay very close attention to details." She threw her hair forward then back, letting it fall straight along her back and shoulders. "How do I look?"
"Get a bat and a gun. And don't go near any military bases."
"Wonderful." Erik looked around and pulled on socks and sneakers, then a pair of fingerless, black leather gloves with more wards on them. The corona seemed to die out as she got fully dressed, save for a few sparks in the hair. That went away when she tossed on the red ball cap with another pentacle embroidered in the brow. She found a wallet with all of her I.D.s and her debit card in the mix, helpfully warded. Her keys were there, including all the ones to the Whateley grounds. She slid that into her pocket and stood up, realizing that the magic energy didn't immediately spark up when she did. It was like those currents were being pushed away and forced to release when they did touch her.
"Holy shit I can move."
"Yeah, Circe said as long as you're wearing this mumbo-jumbo clothing and inside the wards your little nimbus thing should be fully suppressed. Outside it's back to the mad light show like before in here. Don't take off the clothes outside, otherwise things might get really interesting."
"Great. Who's bright idea was the teeny kid wear? And how the hell did they find it so it'd fit so well?"
Bardue grinned. "Well, Circe, in her supposedly immortal wisdom, figured it'd be easier for you to be anonymous if you looked like any other kid on campus. The ward-things have to be wide-open to work right. As to the measurements..." He kinda looked sheepish.
"Oh HELL NO! You didn't." She took his guilty look in and turned bright red, cheeks burning. It was a well-known talent back in the marine barracks that Gunny Bardue had. He could look at a woman and tell someone what the woman's measurements were to the millimeter. There had been more than a few betting pools in the barracks over it.
"Let's never talk about it again. Ever." She ground out through clenched teeth. "And if I hear about a betting pool in the CST I will kill all of you in the most painful fashion I can come up with."
"No betting pools Erik. Well, one, but we're having a bitch of a time getting the information on Hartford. So far that pot's been growing for a while."
"Put me in for twenty that you win."
"Look, Erik, I wasn't sure how to tell you this, but it's about Cat's memorial."
Erik felt his mood darken severely. The corona came back with a hiss. Blazing red energy ripped across her body, and over her new clothing.
"They held it yesterday. Hartford pushed it based on the fact that no one could be sure how long you'd be laid out. I wasn't able to do anything about it."
"That fucking bitch, I'm going to kill her!" The partial body corona erupted into a full body burn, in fiery oranges and reds as her emotions lit up. It burned, it hurt. Good. "She knew that this was the one god damned thing I wanted. I wanted to be able to lay Cat to rest! God damned fucking WHORE!"
Bardue flinched from the sudden display. "Erik, there's nothing I can do, and killing Hartford won't bring her back."
"No but it'll make me feel a whole lot better."
"God damn, kid, we put too much marine in you. Tell you what. I'll lay in some targets with her picture on them, but you can't go haring off with violence on the mind, comprende?" He nodded as the glow simmered and finally faded. "I know you're mad, but it's all I can do to keep you here and not in a lab. Never mind your job, which I'm not sure we can get back unless your situation drastically improves. Whenever someone touches you or moves you it's hit or miss whether they're going to get hurt, bad."
"Hurt? I thought it just hurt me."
"No Erik, that energy that causes pain to you had burned or severely injured people who were moving you to the room here. And that's while you're asleep. It's ten times worse when you're awake, from the doctors' notes."
"Oh I feel so much better now."
"Yeah." He looked at his watch. "Look I gotta get back to the simulator. We're running the Grunts and that Kimba batch through the wringer tonight. Get out of the room, get some air, walk around. Think about what you want to do for the next couple weeks. The only thing you're really not allowed to do is resume duties on range control or official instruction. At least, that's what Hartford said. So get creative and have fun."
Erik smirked. The last time Gunny had told him to get creative and have fun he'd thrown a kegger at the barracks, flaunting, bending and exploiting about a dozen base regs, and had gotten away with it. He'd been the hero of the platoon until the next morning's hangovers.
She looked out the window, noting the green flag, and walked to the door, gingerly stepping into the hallway. The currents were clinging and snapping again, causing the stings and burns, but no eruptions, no storms of hell and no demons poking through to eat her. So far so good. She left the storage building and walked out towards the campus and prepared to face down her new change.
She got a lot of stares. Mostly from the guys, and not a few girls, which made her self-conscious as all hell, but she figured it had as much to do with the fact that she looked like she had St. Elmo's fire ripping across parts of her body at random. Then there was the whole Avatar of Pagan Mysticism look from all of the glyphs, wards and sigils on her clothes. She supposed it could have been worse. Some of the kids were a hair shy of absolutely horrific, and they tended to hide away from the public eye. At least she didn't have to hide from normal people.
The walk through campus was uneventful, if a little hellish to her awareness that a lot of people were looking at her, and she caught more than a few snippets of conversation about her ass and tits. The conversations stopped when the Arcane fire started really blazing when she caught Greasy and Peeper talking about her on the WARS setup they always carried about.
"And look at this new hottie to the Whateley board!, absolutely smoking! Care to tell us your name missy?" Peeper was always really good at not getting caught by the campus watchdogs at his kind of obvious sexual harassment. Sure it was broadcast for all at the school to hear, but they actually needed to catch him at it.
Erik had made all the classic blunders, walking alone, not really looking around much and looking like an easy mark in general. "Not in the mood for this boys, please leave me alone."
Peeper pressed on, oblivious to the reddening face and fiery corona that was building around her. Several other students saw the buildup and started backing away.
"Aww, come on hottie, if you're not going to tell us your name you could at least share the secrets of how you developed such a fine ass."
That was it. Erik's temper blew. His fuse about certain things was painfully short, harassment of women being the easiest trigger that didn't involve outright attack. Peeper jumped back, alarmed as the air around the young woman exploded in a cloud of black energy that hissed, steamed and was rapidly melting the concrete around her.
"Listen you little perverted Jack-off! If you come near me again I swear by all that is holy and a few things that aren't I will end you!" The expression on her face was somewhere between angry and bloodletting psychotic, and that blackened cloud was creeping outward.
"I can see you're in a bad mood, so we'll talk to you later." Peeper and Greasy bolted off, looking for an easier target as Erik fought to get her emotions in check. Slowly, steadily, the fog vanished and she stood there, breathing slowly. When she stepped away and looked down, the concrete was warped and deformed at the radius, and the surface seemed almost glassy, obsidian. She knelt down and cracked the glassy sheen away from the rest of it and broke it into chunks idly, wondering why she was doing it. Pretty soon she had two big chunks of it, and several more were jammed into her pockets.
Then she became aware of it. The stares. There were more than a few slack-jawed looks and people were looking at her like she'd sprouted a second head that preached the gospel of Dagon. Then again there was a small crowd of girls who were clapping. Erik raised a fist to them and walked away, trying to be nonchalant, as if she had intended the bit of minor havoc.
She went back to her room and dumped the obsidian in a corner, and stared at it for a few minutes. "Tools. I need tools." She never realized that she was zoning out, almost on autopilot, as new instincts kicked in, sparked by the sudden appearance of the Obsidian glass.
She was back out the door and on her way to the school store pretty quick. She'd been to the store often enough, and the presence of oddities like bulletproof jackets didn't even faze her. She wandered into the area frequented by devisors and started poking at the tools. She eventually settled on hand tools and sanders. Nothing in the lot was motorized.
She wandered over to the mystic section and snagged a goodly number of random bits and pieces that actually caught her eye, as well as some blank rings that weren't made of any normal jewelry metals, and a silver chain. She carried the lot in a basket that shocked the kid at the register when he saw how deformed and scorched it was.
"Umm, is that all?" He looked at the basket like it might try to eat him.
"Got anything I can carry this lot in? Preferably something really resilient. I think plastic bags would get destroyed."
"Uh, yeah." He wandered over and picked up a heavy steel-reinforced briefcase and hauled it over.
"Sweet, thanks." She kinda bounced in place, mind elsewhere, and showing some really ADD behavior, not to mention distracting her cashier every time she bounced.
He put all of her stuff into the case and charged her debit card. She picked up her loot, and grinned, never realizing that he was paying very close attention as she left. She was in the zone, heading back to her room, then out the door just as fast. Erik wasn't really thinking, just acting, as if by some weird impulse. She hiked out away from the campus grounds and began sifting through the dirt until she found what she was looking for. She wasn't even sure what it was until she found it.
An hour later a pinkie knuckle-size piece of quartz was added to the pile and she wandered out to the auto shop, picking up a disposable acetylene torch and igniter, followed by a visit to the magic department, where she trimmed away a few loose ivy leaves from the wall. A picture was forming in her mind, and she was damned near completely mentally occupied, not registering the looks and comments from the boys on campus. It just didn't seem important. The occasional shock and stab of mystic pain didn't seem to bother her either.
As she went back around, a few kids entering the magic department just stared. One child saw the phenomena, but other senses showed something very different. The other students were much the same, shocked at how much raw magic tore across her skin, and how much more was restrained by some very powerful wards. All of them were left with an impression of heat and steel being shaped and forged.
The hyperactive, distracted mood evaporated as she sat down next to her little pile. The rings came out, as did two pieces of obsidian, one large, and one fairly small. she set a small ceramic container to the side and lit the acetylene torch, promptly dropping the two rings and the quartz crystal before slowly heating them with the flame. It seemed to take forever, but the metal started to glow, and the crystal cracked a bit from the heat. She set them aside and took the small piece of obsidian and used a hammer and chisel to crack off the sharp edges and split off the sides. Another tool came out and she began scraping away unwanted material, then sanding and polishing the piece gently. When she was done she set it aside and heated the metal and crystal again. When she was done she went outside, taking all of her stuff with her, leaning against the walls, outside the influence of the wards.
The long shard of obsidian she chipped, cracked and cut away. She ended with another piece that looked like a dark glass knife with an sixteen-inch blade. She took out the etching tools, and began carving symbols and patterns in the blade. She didn't know how she knew them or how she knew where to place them, but she did. She did the same to the smaller piece. She heated the rings and crystal again, this time letting them melt and gel into one another. She began chanting as she kept the heat on, watching the metal pool become almost clear. She dropped in the ivy leaves and let them sear to ash and mix with the odd fluid. She dipped the small piece into the odd liquid, and then poured the rest onto the blade while gripping the hilt. In each case the melted stuff dripped like mercury through the channels and patterns etched, but slid off the naked obsidian like water off a windshield. Most of it wound up cooling on the ground, but just enough managed to stay inside the markings.
She watched and waited, seeming to time every breath and counting seconds. The sun hit the horizon and she slid the silver chain through the loop she had carved on the small piece and hung it from the branched of a nearby tree, where it could bathe in the moonlight. The blade she pierced the earth with, and left it to sit as the sun's dying rays passed over the world.
"You understand your task here, child?" The wizened old man's eyes were alight with hope... and greed. The priest's robes he wore were scorched and marked from handling the girl into the closed chamber.
"Yes, your eminence, I understand. I will wait and be still while you flense the sickness from me." She looked around. The chamber was marked, wall to wall with the symbols of the church to ward off unholy influences.
"Yes child, while I was expecting a warrior, I suppose God works in mysterious ways. Now lie down. This will hurt most likely."
The girl nodded, giving a hateful glare to the mirror, noting the metallic hair, the mad eyes and the energies that marked her apart from her family. She steeled herself and disrobed, lying on the table as the priest began his prayers. He held a needle in his hand, and a glass jar, horrifically expensive, and filled with a metallic gold fluid. His prayers didn't stop over the course of two days and nights, as he carefully dipped the needle into the golden ink and pierced her flesh. He did it again, and again, thousands of times over, carefully marking the symbols of purification and absolution upon her.
She felt the prick, the pain on her face, her arms, her breasts, her stomach, her legs. The whole time he kept stern concentration, and kept painful attention to the details. When he was done with her front he went to her back, again pricking, always marking her. She knew that the Cardinal would save her. She knew her soul was in peril and was willing to be marked for life if it meant she may go to heaven. The pain, the marks, the pricks. She prayed silently that she would not be so marred that she would never find a husband. Little did she know, it was not to be.
He placed his hands in her head, and she could feel blessed water dripping down her hair. "In god's name, be complete child."
She burned, her skin feeling the searing light that penetrated her mind and soul. Then she felt a numbness creep through her body, penetrating everything she was. She felt... empty.
"Lord in heaven please forgive me for what I have done to this child."
What did he just say? Never mind, it was unimportant. She stood quietly and looked into the mirror. She was beautiful still, with metallic hair, and odd eyes. It did not seem to matter anymore. The emptiness filled her, and she knew the demon had been driven from her. She couldn't see her old face, any sign of... a name... She had a name before. She couldn't remember it. Perhaps the demon had taken it when it was driven out, leaving her with the metallic golden marks, the script across her forehead in Latin, the cross that framed her breasts, or the other symbols of the church that were now a permanent part of her body.
"Come, little artificer. The Knights of the Thorns have a service they need you to perform." His voice seemed strained with something...guilt? It didn't matter.
The priest recoiled as though he had been stabbed.
Tuesday, November 28th
Mrs. Chulkris walked into the empty room in the early morning just before dawn. Apparently Mahren was off enjoying his new freedom. She was glad she and Circe had been able to put that wardrobe together on such short notice. Even though Mahren and Bardue often maligned the mystics of Whateley as mumbo-jumbo speaking finger wigglers, they were good people. She checked the wards, and saw no damage. A few simple tests showed that they were still going strong, so she looked around. A glimmer of light caught her eye out the window for a brief second, off something glassy hanging from a tree outside. The sun's face was just now peeking from over the horizon.
She went outside and looked around, noting the tools and the torch lying near the wall. There were bits of obsidian glass all over the place, and something else. She pried the odd, silvery crystalline substance from the ground. It had pooled and congealed with bits of dirt and rock trapped within. It was light, but she couldn't bend or break it. She muttered something under her breath, and the stuff faintly glowed with a purplish light. She turned to look at the tree, and saw a inch-wide obsidian pentacle pendant with intricately carved runes dangling from a silver chain on a branch. The runes were filled with that odd, silvery crystal. She reached out, but held back, whispering something.
The pendant seemed to burst into eldritch fire, only white, like the balefires of fae legend. She stood back as the fire faded, and the pendant, unmarred, sat glittering in the sun's rays. She almost tripped over the knife. She looked down and picked it up, noting the insanely sharp blade and the silvery crystal etchings carefully. The knife practically hummed, and she could feel... something. Another test and the blade burned with white fire, as the pendant had.
A girl's voice rang out. "Awww, shit!" Then a snapping and buzzing sound erupted. When she turned it was to face a girl who looked somewhere in her mid-teens to mid-twenties bolting across the yard, a corona of energy blazing violently to match the girl's frantic speed. A forgotten lunch bag lay on the ground a ways back.
"Shit shit shit shit shit! You didn't touch them before the sun came up did you?" She seemed almost frantic.
"Calm down, dear. The sun was up when I found them." She got a good look. From the metallic hair and odd, metallic eyes she looked like Bardue's description of his wayward range hand. That and she was wearing the clothing she and Circe had made. She could see that the wards would need to be improved. The girl was still crackling and sizzling with every movement. The lines around her looked like they were clinging and snapping insanely.
"Oh thank god." She seemed honestly relieved.
"Where did you get these?"
"The knife and the pendant? I made them yesterday. I don't know why I set them so, but I know it was important."
Mrs. Chulkris could swear there was something odd about her eyes. Then the statement registered. "You made these yesterday? How? It takes months to empower items like this!"
"Huh? Empower? Uhhhh." Now the girl seemed confused.
"Erik, right?" The way the girl froze with a look of panic she knew she'd hit the mark. "Relax, child, You know I won't share your secret. These items are empowered."
She performed the spell again and both the pendant and the knife flared yet again. "Woah! I thought I could only figure out how to use and break that shit!"
"Language, dear. I know you're older than you look, but best not to shatter the illusion just yet." She picked up the two items gently.
"Mind if I take these? I'll bring them back. I'd like someone to inspect your work." She turned the items over, looking intently at them.
"Uh, mind if I keep the pendant? I kinda made it for me."
She handed the pentacle back to the girl who clasped the short chain behind her neck. The pendant hung just above her breasts, and looked right somehow. Just to check something she cast the spell on the girl. She was suddenly wreathed in heatless flames entirely, skin and all. The eyes, however, burned blue.
"Woah hey hey hey, no igniting the Jarhead here!"
"Relax, the flames are harmless. I was just testing something. I've only seen two items that showed that kind of flame before." She looked close. The girl's hair looked like it was literally made of black metal filaments. And her eyes. They were like forged steel, with really odd markings.
"Uh yo, Earth Mother? yeah I know you're used to the hairy eyeball but it's kinda uncomfortable from this end."
"Oh, sorry dear. I think I should get going. Be careful Erik."
The confused, and mildly irritated, girl went back, collected her tools and breakfast before going back into her room. Body of a teenager or not, she wasn't a child.
Mrs. Chulkris walked back into the magic department and began preparing her class for the day. She finished the prep work and took the knife and the chunk of silvered crystal and wandered through to the main office and knocked. "Come in."
Circe was a contrast to Mrs. Chulkris' verdant form. She seemed to have an ageless face and a lot of years behind her eyes. She was a striking woman, with Greek features and dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She looked over at her colleague and smiled.
"Hello. I don't see you walking the halls this early very often. What can I do for you?"
The teacher smirked. "I have a puzzle for you. Some kind of Athame it looks like. I don't recognize the type and it's got a very unique signature."
"Well let's have a look at it."
She examined the blade. "This isn't an Athame. It's similar, but this one is definitely not." A quick word and the whole dagger shimmered and glowed, the etchings blazing white.
"I also came across this. It's the same kind of material in the etching."
Circe picked up the crystalline bit and stared at it. Pieces clicked into place. "I've never seen this stuff in raw, unworked form before." She looked at the dagger and touched the blade to her desktop, the blade sliced a thin line a centimeter deep without pressure. "It's a Harvester. Gods where did you find a Harvester?"
"It's used to harvest mystic components safely, and unlike an Athame it can be used to fight without disrupting the energies. There are only a few craftsmen in the world to ever build one of them."
"And the crystal?"
"It's a signature, a byproduct of a true artificer. The last person to actually make and use this substance died just before the fourth crusade. She was burned as a witch when the more hardline members of the church got hold of her."
Mrs. Chulkris winced, but Circe continued. "Don't feel pity, the girl... Well let's just say even death by fire was a mercy for one like her."
"And if I told you that this blade and the bit of crystal slag there were made by a girl on campus? She claims she made it in a day."
"That's not possible. Only a true artificer could make something like this that quickly, and not one of the magic students here. None of them have the knowledge."
"This isn't one of ours. Tall girl, Metallic hair with eyes that look like forged steel with glyphs and markings around the discs of her iris."
Circe went pale, and held her breath a moment. "Which student?"
"I never said student." She frowned at Circe's apparent concern. " I found these when I went to check Erik's wards. She made this, and a pendant she didn't want to part with."
"This is not good." She handed the blade back. "Take that back to Mahren and forget you ever saw it. Or this." She held up the slagged crystal.
"Chulkris, believe me when I say if word gets out before we can help her she is fucked."
"Just do it. And don't tell anyone where that came from. If someone grabs that girl she will become a slave, and there won't be a damned thing we can do to free her except kill her."
Erik walked into the crystal hall at lunch time, her knife now proudly strapped to a thong she'd put together at her hip. She watched the students milling about getting food, and counted heads that she recognized. Thankfully only a few people stared. Most were deeply engaged in eating food and talking loudly to friends. She stopped near the entrance to the staff cafeteria when she saw Amelia Hartford go inside. Nope, not going to go in there. She knew without a doubt that if she had the woman within arm's reach she'd cheerfully strangle the life out of her.
She looked at the chow line dubiously, then back at the door. Hmmm, kid line, kill Hartford, kid line, kill Hartford... Tough decision. Eventually the growling stomach and a lack of desire to start another violent light show won out. She went into line, got a tray and a plate full of food. Most of the girls were getting light stuff, salads and such. Hell no, no rabbit food for me, she thought as she carried the tray full of meat and bread stuff over to an empty table away from the main throng.
She sat, and started picking at the plate, mostly watching the kids. Most of them were just smokin' and jokin' as she and the Gunny called it. Realistically it could have been a scene from a marine chow hall at any given time, except most marines couldn't spray napalm from their fingertips. Not for the lack of trying though. She was so caught up in her reminiscing that she only barely noticed the boy who sat down across from her.
Dark skinned, dreadlocked and a fashion sense that screamed "kill me now" were what she saw when he sat. Erik was no fashion guru herself, but there are some things you just don't wear with a kilt. He had pure solid white eyes, no irises or pupils whatsoever, though his face had a certain humor to it. He dropped a book bag and set down the tray, and cane he'd been walking with.
"Uh, hello?" She asked curiously.
"Oh hi!" he didn't face her when he responded, seemingly staring straight ahead. "New face? Don't see too many people sitting back here in outcast corner." It took her all of two seconds to figure out he was blind. It was a common enough mutation side-effect.
"Outcast corner, huh?"
He grinned. "Yup, welcome to the big OC. My name's Jericho, and you are?" He extended his hand in her direction.
"Not safe to touch." She flicked her wrist, causing a hissing *Zap*. "I got this thing that tends to try to crispy-fry anything I come in contact with pretty much at random. Never mind some serious control issues."
"Ahh, I see. Damn that's some pretty ugly energy there, girl. But, no worries, seen worse. Not like things like that don't happen here at Freaky High." He spoke with such good humor it was impossible to get irritated at his deprecating comments. In fact it was kind of infectious.
"You can see the energy?"
"Not as such. See, I can sense everything going on. a full circle awareness. I can see, or more specifically, sense everyone in the hall here in all directions until I hit a wall or the edge of normal human eyesight. Downside is, my eyeballs ain't what they used to be."
"Huh. Not the craziest thing I've heard. So you on one of the teams here?"
Jericho snickered. "Teams? Nah all that spandex and hero crap ain't for me. I'm part of a band, though you probably wouldn't wanna hang around the other two. They tend to weird out the norms."
"Trust me, norm does not apply in my case."
"I'd hope not, Norm's liable to lose an arm to that knife you got there if he gets too gropey."
Erik laughed, in spite of herself.
"Now that's what I like to hear. Too many long faces walking about thinking the world is on their shoulders around here. Need to cheer up, get some laughs. Life's to short for all that other bullshit."
"That sounds suspiciously like advice I've given to people. Maybe I should take my own medicine."
Jericho grinned. "Best kind. And it even don't taste like shit, unless it's a storm of pun."
"Hmm, best not fire my standard ammo then. It tends to be rather punishing."
"Damn girl, that's evil." Erik wasn't sure he cared to be called 'girl,' but all the physical evidence pointed to it, so she let it pass.
She shrugged "Never claimed to be an angel." she looked up. "Oh Jesus Christ it's Peeper and Greasy again. If they come over here..."
"Not to worry. Peeper won't come near me. I give him the creeps. Threatened to use my psychic powers to tell the world just how small his dinky is."
She just about snorted the glass of water through her nose, and looked at him incredulously. "I like your way better. I just threatened to slaughter him."
"Ah, the voice of radio rage. So that was you that told the little bugger off, and from what I heard, making the pavement disintegrate."
Erik shrugged. "You know me, control issues and a hair-trigger."
The boy smiled. "As a last note on Peepers, I gotta say I wish he'd go pester Hippolyta."
Erik chuckled. "That'd end the problem quick."
"You know Hippie? They putting you in Poe?"
Erik thought very carefully about it before responding. "No, I bumped into her once, or more specifically, bounced off of her." True enough. She'd knocked him over and glared at him like it was his fault while she was still a he. She'd gotten real contrite when she'd figured out he was school staff, but only enough to get out of detention. Her opinions of anyone with a penis were well-known.
"Ouch. Can't imagine that was fun."
"Eh, shit happens. So why you here by yourself? Being here in the OC isn't completely explainable by your wardrobe choices.."
He chuckled. "You mean my 'asylum escapee' ensemble isn't going to win me any friends? Damn. there goes my plan for world conquest."
"Sorry no conquest for you. I plan to destroy it."
"And why would you do that?"
"Well, maybe not the world. Just reality. And because it's something to kill the boredom. I've been plotting since I was eight. All I need now are two white lab mice. One needs to be long and dopey, the other one must be tiny and brilliant."
"NARF! Well sorry. I can't let you destroy reality. It's where I keep all my stuff."
Erik chuckled. "Hey, I haven't even finished my burger and I already have a nemesis! SWEET!"
The both got a laugh out of that. Soon lunch was over and they got up.
"See ya later?"
Erik thought about it. "Maybe. Can't promise. I'm kinda here on a trial basis. See what I can see and all that."
"Well I hope you come. Whateley's a good asylum for folks like us, and we could use one or two more pretty ones like you who don't think they're God's gift to the undeserving masses." With that, the technicolor wardrobe nightmare of a boy walked out of the cafeteria in his kilt, whistling. He never saw that the girl he left back at the table was blushing bright red.
The range was all hustle and bustle when the class started. She noted with annoyance that Wilson was on range control. He wasn't a bad guy, he just was a bit loose with the range safety. She ignored him and walked the line, noting the students' firing positions. A few of them were backsliding, but not much she could do about it, and she didn't want to get Bardue in trouble by doing the old shooting coach thing.
Two members of the Grunts team were there. She picked them out easily enough in their mil-spec digital camo clothing. The two of them, and the other four members of their team were her best shooting students. No surprises there, the grunts team was made up of kids who were enamored with military service. Not the CIA and covert crap that most of the kids got tapped for, but honest-to-god military grunt work. Their code names weren't too imaginative, but they definitely showcased what they could do. Deadeye and Mule were practicing with an M-16A2 rifle and a M-240 Golf machine gun.
Deadeye was definitely the best shot of the lot. His shots were almost universally in the bulls-eye. She didn't bother to score him anymore. He just came in to stay on the sharp edge. He was an odd sight for a kid who wanted to be in the infantry. Tall, skinny as a rail and with a shock of blood-red hair, he looked like a goofy basketball player. His eyes were the weird thing. They were a sickening purple color all the way through, with a horizontal slit pupil that looked more box-like than ovoid. He was using the M-16 like a surgeon uses a scalpel, cutting the targets out of the paper they were marked on. He wasn't showing off, it was the only way he could get a challenge at closer than 1500 meters.
Mule was a classic brick. Big, broad and heavily muscled, he could take a horrendous amount of punishment without flinching. He could also rip tank armor like paper. His eyes looked perfectly normal, and his dark crew-cut made him look like a wall with hair. He couldn't hit shit with a normal rifle. His hands were too big to grip them properly. Give him a belt-fed automatic weapon and he was a genius at suppressive fire. He was currently smearing a target group with short, controlled bursts like she'd taught him.
She saw an open lane, and went to the weapons locker and unlocked it. Students weren't allowed inside, but she had the keys. She wandered over and picked up the MP-5 submachine gun and a couple clips, loaded them, and walked out. Wilson was fucking oblivious. She should leave it unlocked and let the gunny find it. She locked the door and loaded on the way to lane 3, slapping the bolt home with a loud *Clack* and put the carry strap over her shoulder. After she set up targets, she looked over and saw Wilson showing a boy how to get into proper firing position. He'd been oblivious to her deliberate violation of about five range safety rules on the way to the firing lane though. Oh well, another problem for another day, unless he really screwed the pooch. She put in a pair of earplugs and took aim.
She'd set the targets at ten, thirty and fifty meters. The ten-meter one she fired three rounds at the center of the human shaped target. Her sights were off. Wait, she was off. She had to completely re-zero the weapon. She adjusted the sights a bit and fired three more. The recoil was nothing. Odd. there should be more kick. She adjusted the sights once more and the final three rounds made a half-inch group in the center of the target. That's more like it.
She brought up the target and replaced it with a fresh one, sending it to the 20 meter line. Mark. Aim. Fire. rinse, repeat. She put the rest of the clip downrange, putting two shots in each target before moving to the next one. The whole exercise took about six seconds to clear the other twenty-one rounds out of the magazine. She reloaded smoothly without lowering the stock from her shoulder and selected the burst fire mode.
Each pull of the trigger resulted in three bullets spinning downrange at once to tear the target's chest to ribbons. Each target's chest got hit ten times. To an untrained ear it would sound like a machine gun going off, since she took so little time to aim and fire. One burst to a target resulted in some very shredded chest zones. She reloaded and put the bolt home, doing the same to the targets' heads.
"Damn, Deadeye take a look at this shit!" Mule was loud. He could be heard over a hand grenade. This had been proven on numerous occasions. "Check this girl's shots man."
Erik rolled her eyes and turned to look at Mule, clicking the submachine gun on safe as she did so. "Hey, lugnut, volume control. I can hear you over the Barret in lane one!"
Mule managed to look sheepish. "Sorry. I kinda get carried away sometimes."
Deadeye walked over. "Hey who's the new girl? Damn!" He'd seen her targets. Deadeye was one of those rare mutants that wasn't too impressed with himself to recognize good shooting in people without his supernatural coordination.
"Hey, deadbeats, my eyes are up here." Erik knew they wouldn't respond to anything resembling polite conversation. With them it was blunt as hell or the message got lost.
"Sorry." "Yeah, sorry." They were good kids, but Erik wasn't too sure he wanted them ogling his chest.
"Umm, nice shooting." Mule again. He always got tongue-tied with pretty girls, and unfortunately (to Erik) she qualified.
"Thanks. Lemme finish off my last magazine and I'll talk to you, OK?" The boys nodded and Erik tore off the last magazine in exactly the manner she had the last and brought the targets in.
"OK, knuckleheads, come up to the desk so I can take out these earplugs." They weren't used to a girl calling them anything but creepy, so they followed.
Deadeye spoke up first. "Hey where did you learn to shoot like that? Only guys I see able to do that are Corporal Mahren and Gunny Bardue." Great, he wasn't trying to get a date... yet.
"Let's just say I've spent a lot of time on Marine Corps. ranges. Had to prove to the knuckle-draggers that a girl can hang."
They chuckled. "Yeah, Bunker would agree with you there." Bunker was the only girl in the grunts, and she'd fought tooth and nail for their respect from day one. She was short, homely and was a crappy shot with a rifle, surprisingly. What she did well was rocket launchers. She'd been the guinea pig gunner for many a gadgeteer before Erik had quashed that. She lived for the days Erik and Bardue broke out the heavy stuff. No one expected the short, homely blonde girl to be such a ferocious user of explosive ordinance. She'd gotten her name by completely annihilating the entire bunker target system that she and Bardue had set up on the range five simulators.
Erik listened with good humor when they described bunker, then talked shop for an hour while the other kids cleaned up. The boys were animated, since usually the only girl who'd put up with them waxing poetic on the virtues and flaws of myriad firearms, much less be able to intelligently discuss it as well, was Bunker.
When the class ended Erik went a wandering again, this time feeling better. It was always the underdogs and outcasts she hit it off with. She didn't bother walking near the Alphas or the cape squad. She knew well enough that she wouldn't be able to handle high school social politics easily without killing anyone. She wandered aimlessly, trying to avoid the room she was coming to think of as her prison cell.
Erik was wandering past Schuster Hall when Gunny Bardue finally caught her. "Hey kid, busy day?"
The girl shrugged. "Eh, I managed to keep myself occupied. Seems I fit right in around here."
"Good to hear I guess. Look, Carson wants to talk to you. She's been talking to the head finger-wiggler herself."
"I dunno, some mumbo-jumbo shit that she won't explain to me, and Carson's not being much better. But they're making noise about some kinda hokey plan they have."
The pair walked into the office, and Carson and Circe were standing together. They looked over and waved the two into the office. A quick search for listening devices and spells told Erik this was going to be one of those rare "No bullshit" meetings. She looked at Bardue and nodded as he closed the door.
Erik stood, waiting, not bothering to try to end the silence save for the occasional crackle and snap on her skin. the two women were doing the expectant stare thing of the pair of them, and Erik wasn't feeling like playing.
"Why don't you sit, young lady?" It was Circe who spoke first. Erik bristled at the tone, and it must have shown when Bardue backed off a few paces. God bless the Gunny, he was always a bit skittish with the mystic shit. The fact that he was even here in a room with Circe voluntarily spoke volumes.
"I'd rather stand. I like being able to talk eye-to-eye if you don't mind."
Circe nodded and Carson spoke. "Erik... It has come to our attention through Circe here that your mutation may place you in more danger than we originally anticipated. And after speaking to her I tend to agree. We will not be able to continue your employment at Whateley for your safety and that of the students."
"Carson, what the..." Bardue leapt forward to Erik's defense while his protegee looked shocked.
"Wait, Oscar. It's not going to be a railroading and a kick out the door, so please... Be quiet for a moment."
"OK. why am I suddenly in the hot-seat then?" Erik demanded.
"Your mutation. Circe it's your show."
The striking woman stepped forward, holding up a small crystal sphere. "Do you know what this is?"
Erik picked it up and held it, spun it and examined it and the answer came. "Flash globe. Kinda a mystic night light. Kavate." The last word caused the globe to glow with the strength of a light bulb. He tossed it back to Circe.
"Can you tell me how to make one?"
"No I... " She stopped cold, the crystal sphere in his mind as his brain spilled out the exact method for making one, including all of the ritual steps. It was really no more complex than the pendant or knife, and would be a helluva lot easier to make.
"What the hell?"
"How about those items you are wearing. You made them. The Knife is a Harvester, used for collecting components used in mystic artifice. The pendant is a rather potent little magic focus, although you have had no means to use it due to your control issues."
"Um, seemed like a good idea at the time?"
"Then there is the mutation. Metallic hair, and eyes etched with runes, A complete inability to harness and control the energies connected to you, and finally the ability to identify, create and destroy items of artifice by instinct. What would you say if I asked you to make a Stormwatcher Staff?"
Erik thought, mind assailed by arcane instructions and schematics. "I'd say I'd need a damned compelling reason to make you a toy that calls hurricanes and tornados."
Carson spoke again. "Erik there are only a few people in history with mutations identical to yours. Circe and our sources all point to the fact that you are and have a lot of potential, the kind that would prompt certain parties to take you for their own uses."
"They can try." the girl snarled.
Circe stepped forward, "Erik the people who will try to find you will see you as nothing more than a tool, a mystic resource. And if they can get you still long enough to mark you, they will have a perfect, obedient slave."
"Not bloody likely. No one can force me to do shit." Her eyes bugged wide when Circe set a glass jar filled with metallic green fluid and a mithril needle. "Oh HELL no!"
Erik's knife came out, reverse grip, blade backed against her forearm, ready to rip open anything that came near her with that stuff. "Keep that shit away from me," she hissed between clenched teeth. Bardue was right beside her.
"What the hell you playing at, and why's she so god damned scared all of a sudden?"
Circe looked at Gunny. "That there is an ink, that when applied to a certain type of person will bind them, mind, body and soul to become an extension of the creator's will for as long as they live. And certain things, like faeries and demons live a very long time. Erik recognizes it on sight, and given her psychological profile I'm not stepping within five feet of her right now."
"Why did you make it?" Erik was absolutely livid and building up to killing rage rapidly. This time Bardue didn't shy away, but Carson did. Flashes of violent magic were beginning to appear around the room.
"To see if you are what I think you are. And it might give you the key to finding a work around. As long as no one marks your body with that kind of ink you're free, but completely uncontrolled. If they mark you, your powers fully come under control, but you will be a slave. This is the dilemma here. And if you're marked the only freedom is through death."
Bardue edged around and picked up the jar and needle. "I'll just dispose of these."
"No Oscar, you won't" The ageless sorceress said. "Those are for Erik to puzzle out. She is an artificer who can be controlled by another kind of artifice. If she can find out how to work around the compulsion aspects and use them to gain control who are we to deny her?"
"You want me to take it and try to figure out how to fake this shit out? How the hell am I supposed to do that?" The knife stayed in place, but the energy storm was dying as it began.
"I don't know. There are maybe three or four artificers, and not all of them manifest. It takes a rare circumstance to have one in the right place at the right time to absorb enough magic to manifest, and they were always hotly contested when word got out. We're worried that if someone finds out before we can find a solution to the slave dilemma we are going to be in for a very vicious brawl."
"Fucking hell. This is insane. I can probably make more of that stuff easy enough, but I dunno jack about magic. I dunno how this all works, goes together or anything. The only time I ever tried to cast a spell I exploded and grew boobs!" Erik didn't know how the hell to go about this.
"Which brings me back to the original problem," Carson began. "We can't keep Erik Mahren here at Whateley academy without endangering the students, And we can't just set you loose into the world. If we did we might as well be murdering you ourselves."
"So whatcha got up your sleeve Carson? Spill it. All this talk about my Marine is beginning to wear thin."
"Well Oscar, we can't keep him, and we can't release him, so we bury him. We take every record we have of Erik Mahren and bury or burn it. We can make it appear that Erik was black holed at ARC in Black complex. Just getting to that information will be damned near impossible, to say nothing of anyone trying to break in."
She looked at Erik, who was looking about ready to scream. "You, we can hide in the open. We can keep you here at Whateley, as a student for as long as we have to. Anyone searching for one of these so-called artificers will be searching for a hidden, probably terrified girl, not one firmly entrenched and in the open."
"And another thing they won't expect," Circe interjected, "is a girl who can, and undoubtedly will, give them pure, violent hell before being taken. So far as our research has shown, all of the prior artificers were timid, quiet and reserved, and usually desperate for the pain to stop by any means necessary, male or female."
"So me being a complete psychopathic bitch is my best defense?"
"In a word, yes. But save the psychopathic part for those who deserve it."
Carson looked forward. "We need to hammer out a few details. Not the least of which is family history. We need to re-invent your identity from the ground up."
Bardue spoke up. "Family's easy, orphaned child of a KIA marine. Put me down as having been her Godfather, and post-date the adoption papers a year ago. That should clear a few holes about why she's here at Whateley."
Erik stood slack-jawed at Bardue, the old man who was uncomfortable with anything resembling an alternative sexual lifestyle. He looked at her. "Don't look so surprised, you're a good kid. I ain't going to let any shit fall downrange on any of mine, blood or not."
The girl grinned "Thanks boss, or is it Dad?"
"Don't push your luck. We still need to hammer out the paperwork."
Carson pushed a packet toward her. "This is the basic admissions package. Fill it out and return it to me. We'll fill in the blanks. You try to fit in and get to the doctors so we can classify your powers, with appropriate editing by Circe and the Gunny. Whateley takes care of it's own. And Erik?"
"Try not to kill the doctors. It's too hard trying to find ones willing to work here, much less skilled ones."
"I swear, it's a conspiracy to suck all the fun out of my life."
Erik was settled into Outcast Corner with a full tray of food and a packet of paperwork. Hidden within was her final bit of spiteful revenge, and a way of honoring a friend at the same time. She was engrossed, even though she usually loathed paperwork. She was halfway through the packet when she decided to eat her food before it got too cold. She was busy wolfing down her plate of food when a familiar face plopped into the seat across from her.
"I see I didn't scare you off. I'll have to try harder." The not-so-blind boy chortled. "I guess I didn't creep you out after all."
"Well Jericho, I figured you were trying so hard at it you deserved another go." She smirked over the paperwork.
"Yeah, you're definitely a keeper. So you still hanging about our merry little mayhem factory?"
She held up the paperwork. "Enrollment package. I figure it'd be a good place. At least here I don't need to see what pretty shapes I can twist Humans first fuckers into." She let genuine hatred seep into her tone.
"Well good! So you one of the strong and tough types then?"
"Dunno, this is literally a kind of overnight thing and I haven't had a lot of room to experiment. Plus I don't need super strength to snap a beer-bloated pervert racist in two. But I do have a knack for figuring out machines and electronics."
Jericho's grin nearly split his face.
"So you mentioned friends, why they not here with you?"
The boy looked surly. "No offense, but you're what some call the barbie girl package. A few of my friends don't know how to react to pretty girls, and some of 'em have been burned pretty hard. They see pretty girl and just walk away, they don't want to have to put up with sneering or sickened looks while they're trying to eat."
"Sounds like the story of my life."
"New to the beauty queen game then?"
She looked up from her paperwork. "Six days. And I still have a really rough time believing it's me in the mirror. Dammit!"
She put out the small fire that erupted on the page she was writing on.
"I hope that wasn't an important bit there."
She looked. "Nah, just a juvie record. Fortunately I'm clean on that score. So back to the original topic you should have your friends come over. It's not like they all are monsters or something."
She didn't even bother looking up. "Lemme guess, some of 'em are either ugly or just flat-out inhuman looking?"
"Seen a few around campus, the ones brave enough to go in public. I won't have much pity, lord knows it's the last thing someone needs." She looked up at his crestfallen face. "But I will treat 'em like the human beings they are under all the crap. This pretty face and tight bod? It ain't me, and it drives me nuts that people are going to judge me by it."
"You make yourself sound like a complete dog before with that tone."
"Ohhh yeah, in more ways than you can imagine.." It didn't bear mentioning that marines were oft-referred to as 'Devil Dogs.' "Don't wanna get into it. But my point is, we all gained or lost something. I got metal hair, freaktastic eyes and a body that is probably going to be on a poster if Peepers gets near me with a camera. Plus if I touch someone their arm might randomly explode or rot off."
"Sounds like quite the package. Difference is, you're being honest. Every other time someone said something like that I smelled bullshit a mile out, and I was always right. You actually mean it."
"Yeah, Yeah I do." She didn't feel the need to mention that she had served in the military with the most ornery buncha mixed-race bastards on the planet, and a pair of mutant twins that were constantly mocking the world. She'd dubbed them Heckel and Jeckel, and the name stuck. She learned to live with everyone there, and the mere thought of racism, be it racial or mutant made her want to fight.
"Do me a favor, don't ever change."
"No worries about that. I'm more interested in trying to not self-destruct than getting in with the school booster squad."
"So I never did get your name."
"Oh! Sorry! Caitlin Bardue."
"Nice name. Hey we got a instructor here named Bardue. Old guy, Ex-Marine or something."